Professor Geoffrey Bownas: Eminent scholar who pioneered Japanese studies in the UK

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The Independent Online

Geoffrey Bownas was a distinguished Japanese linguist and scholar, and a pioneering Japanologist in the UK. But he also fostered business links between the UK and Japan, and his unfailing desire over nearly 70 years to promote goodwill between the two countries was recognised first by the Japanese government, with the award of the Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1999, and then by Britain, with a CBE in 2003 for services to Japanese studies and Anglo-Japanese relations.

Born the son of a postal worker in 1923 in West Yorkshire Geoffrey progressed by way of scholarships from Sandal School, Baildon, to Bradford Grammar School to the Queen's College, Oxford, where he would have spent four years reading classics had not the war intervened. In the army he was volunteered for an intensive Japanese-language course, which changed his life. After demobilisation he returned to Oxford, completed the classics course with a first-class degree and became a classics lecturer at in Aberystwyth.

He returned to Oxford in 1948 to do a second degree, this time in Chinese, and he got a first in this too. Then, from 1952, came two years in Japan (which should have been in China, but China was closed) working with the eminent Japanese Sinologist Kaizuka Shigeki. Kaizuka, whose book on Confucius Bownas was later to translate into English, urged him out of the library into the Japanese countryside, where his imagination was stimulated by folk rituals and practices. Bownas entered Japan as a Sinologist and left as a Japanologist.

Bownas might have followed awell-trodden academic path from then on, as he was appointed lecturer in Chinese and Japanese at Oxford in 1954, the first holder of such apost. The academic writings that resulted from his Japan trips in the 1950s are broadly in the field of anthropology: acute observation and detailed recording of traditional practices without the overlay of theory that would be normal now. But Bownas was not ambitious for himself as a scholar; rather, he was ambitious for Japanese studies and awareness of Japan in the UK.

In 1963 he succeeded in establishing Oxford's first full honours degree in Japanese. It was very much a "minimum kit" operation, and Bownas set about raising money to improve it. One of my first memories as his successor was finding carbon copies of scores of letters that he had personally typed to companies that might support his cause. In 1966 he had moved to Sheffield to become the first professor of Japanese and director of its new centre of Japanese studies, where disciplinary training in history and the social sciences was to be given equal weight with language study, a new type of undergraduate degree of which he was very proud.

His drive to raise awareness of Japan manifested itself in the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964), whose first edition sold 100,000 copies, and many Japan-related presentations on radio and later for television (for example, the Inside Japan series of 1977). The Penguin Book was a collaboration between a scholar/translator (Bownas) and a poet (Anthony Thwaite OBE), and was a model of its kind in its evident determination to convey the essence of a rich poetic tradition. It is now a Penguin Classic.

The Sheffield centre, focused on being modern and relevant, was a very different academic environment from Oxford. Apart from administration (director of the centre and, from 1976, dean of the faculty of social sciences) and continued work on Japanese culture (Penguin New Writing in Japan, 1972, with the novelist Mishima Yukio as his co-editor), Bownas began to build a new role for himself as an intermediary between the British and Japanese business communities. He did consultancy work for the car industry, wrote for the Financial Times and, in 1974 edited, with the publisher Paul Norbury, Business in Japan, a Guide to Japanese Business Practice and Procedure.

By 1980 Bownas thought it was time to move on. He writes of being tired of administration and out of step with his staff. He took early retirement and devoted the rest of his life to fostering links between the UK and Japan. His consultancy for AMEC on the successful bid to supply steel for Kansai International Airport (1990) and his authorship of a special report for the Economist Intelligence Unit (1991) are just two examples of this. Early in the 21st century, as he approached 80, he added a campaigning interest in language teaching and in 2005 was elected a vice-president of the Institute of Linguists.

And all the time Geoffrey Bownas was singing. Choral singing was his principal leisure activity and at various times he joined more than eight different choirs. He could even claim to have sung with Pavarotti – as one of 1,500 voices in the World Festival Chorus at Verona in 1990. Japan and music defined Geoffrey Bownas's very full life.

Geoffrey Bownas, scholar of Japanese studies: born Yeadon, West Yorkshire 9 February 1923; CBE 2003; married firstly (two daughters), 2009 Wiesia Cook; died 17 February 2011.